Think of the advantages the Fort Wayne Komets have over almost every minor league hockey team:
• The second-longest tenured ownership group.
• The second-longest franchise history.
• Possibly the most loyal and energetic fan base.
• One of the best buildings to play in.
• They get treated like a major league team in their city.
• They also have arguably the best captain and best locker room leadership in the minors, a proven winning formula, and an experienced off-ice staff second-to-none in the minors.
They've also got coach Al Sims, who is usually the most overlooked part of the entire equation. Sims, 59, has the closest view from the bench and often the biggest responsibility for most of the advantages. During his 10 years in Fort Wayne, Sims has won five league titles, reached the finals another year and won five division titles, building an amazing 404-215-70 regular-season record and winning 15 of 19 playoff series.
Imagine what the advantage must be for a coach with 25 years of pro experience, including four in the National Hockey League. Think of all the things he's seen hundreds of times and knows how to react to instantly that coaches in their first or second years are just starting to understand.
Think of how many times in recent playoffs when he probably should have panicked when the Komets trailed in series 3-1 or 2-0 after losing the first two games at home. Sims just got more prepared and gave his team more confidence, and the Komets always rallied. Instead of seeing the deficits as disasters, his teams have always seem them as opportunities for greatness.
``The one thing I really enjoy more than anything else is solving problems, either with individual players or problems against another team,'' Sims said. ``Being down to Missouri 2-0 or Port Huron 3-1 twice, they presented problems we were able to solve. You need the players to do it, but I've been fortunate and blessed with really great players here.''
Part of that is the work of General Manager David Franke, and part is that the players love playing here for Sims. Look at the players no one else wanted who became start in Fort Wayne under Sims, such as Nick Boucher, Kaleigh Schrock, Matt Syroczynski, Mathieu Curadeau and Frankie DeAngelis during Sims' second tour in Fort Wayne, and Ian Boyce, Lee Davidson, Bobby Jay, Jean-Marc Richard, Grant Richison, Paul Willett and Kelly Hurd during his first run in the early 1990s.
Not every player always loves playing for Sims, but they all love playing in Fort Wayne and usually have the best years of their careers playing for him.
``One thing I've learned is I used to look at players and think, how good is he, what can he do for me scoringwise, defensivewise, goaltending and not really about the quality of the person,'' Sims said. ``The one thing David and I have learned here through the years is make sure we get quality guys who are character guys. If their other coaches love them and they have lots of energy, those are the kinds of people we want.''
And then Sims starts planting seeds and allows Colin Chaulk, Brett Smith, Schrock and Brent Henley to train the newcomers in the locker room. Sometime early each season, the Komets will win a tough game by coming back during the third period, and Sims will start talking about how there's lots of character in the room and this team never quits. By midseason, the players start talking about how that's just the way the Komets always play. By the playoffs, everybody in the room has no doubt they can overcome anything. It's all part of Sims' self-fulfilling prophecy.
``Myself, Chaulker and Smitty do a good job of selling the success ideal here,'' Sims said. ``They believe this is the way we have to play to win, and they pass it down the line to the guys. It's important to get the young guys and the new guys to know this is what is expected of you and how we do it. By the playoffs, all our young guys believe we can go out and do this.
``Planting the seeds is huge for us. We want to win. I want to win in the ECHL. This is the last bastion for me in AA hockey. It would be a crowning achievement, for sure. I'm sure a lot of guys in the room feel the same way.''
See, there he goes again.
No matter how many players return, each season starts fresh and championship teams must be built. No one hates to lose games more than Franke, and no one loves winning more than Sims, who understands learning to win is a process.
``The biggest thing is each individual player and getting them to play the style you need from them in order to be successful,'' Sims said. ``When we get everybody firing on all cylinders doing what we ask them to do, we're in good shape. Last year we were dominant for weeks at a time. We all pull the same way when we need to.''
But Sims also knows he has helped create a monster in Fort Wayne. Management always demands to win, the fans expect to win and he wants to win. His worst regular-season record the last five years in Fort Wayne was still four games over .500 after a 5-15-1 start, but everyone considers that a bad season.
``It's definitely pressure-packed, but I think it's good that we have that here,'' he said. ``When you have new guys coming in, you tell them what is expected of them because the fans really don't put up with anything less. You can see how desperate the fans are to win, and that goes on to (the owners), and they feed it to me and I feed it to the players.
``Before I got here, I don't think the fans were expecting a championship every year. I'm sure everybody wanted one, but it's one of those things now where we've set a different standard, which is good.''
The players all take that challenge and make it their own each season. The new guys come to Fort Wayne because they want that challenge, too, especially if they've never won before.
Confidence comes from success, and Sims truly believes in the way he makes the Komets play, which means any player coming here has to adjust, not the other way around. They may not always like it, but no one can argue with the record.
``When you are in the moment like we have been these last five years, I'm not really going to appreciate it until 10, 20 years down the line and I look back,'' Sims said. ``I'm going to have a totally different perspective of it when you realize how fortunate we have been.''
Though he'll turn 60 in April, Sims still has tremendous drive to win. He loves being at the top of the mountain and knowing everyone else is jealous and trying to kick him off. He can't imagine not continuing to drive the Komets. He says sometimes he feels like 60-year broadcaster Bob Chase, who can never wait for the next season to start
``I can't believe it's been five years this time already,'' Sims said. ``It's gone by like that. Sue (his wife) and I have talked, and we're going to do this until I get fired or I don't get any enjoyment out of it to where it becomes all pressure and no fun. Right now the fun is more than the pressure.''
Why would he stop? He's shaped this job and helped make Fort Wayne the premier place to coach in all of Class AA hockey.